In Parashat Tazria, exploring the mysteries of birth and gender

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Try to imagine an ancestor to whom one of the great mysteries (among many) was birth. It’s not too great a stretch, especially if you’ve had a child. Great mystery and wonder and delight and fear and awe all bound up together even for us moderns. But for the ancients, such bundling of notions we’ll call, for the sake of the 2½ minutes it takes to read this piece: mystery. Raza, we call it in Aramaic, a bundle of feelings, all large, that authenticates our lives.

One of the great curiosities to the ancestors associated with birth was who contributes what to the offspring. We are not the only culture obsessed with sex-linked characteristics. Our ancestors also wondered: Who contributes what to the child? What comes from mommy, what comes from daddy?

Look at the second line of the portion Tazria (Leviticus 12:2), in which a woman tazria – er, makes seed – uh oh, hold on, let’s stop right there. What does that mean: a woman making seed? Tazria, the verb that accompanies the woman in the verse (it’s a causative verb form), making seed? What kind of seed does a woman make? Seed becomes associated with a man in the Hebrew root zera, just as it does in English: seed. 

In the Torah, however, this word seed is first used for the generative activity of plants in Genesis 1:11 and 12. But just as in English, the notion of seed becomes associated with the male contribution because, well, for one thing, you can see it.

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One of the popular notions of the Greek world and all who came under its influence was articulated by Aristotle. The human embryo is created by the blood of a woman when combined with the seed of a man. We find this also in a well-known midrash in the Talmud (see Niddah 31a) citing the contributions of the father and the mother and G-d. 

The Roman physician Galen made a case that a woman produced seed just as a man did. He wrote a book, called it “Seed.” Explicit reference to female seed is found also in Maimonides. He was, after all, a physician and had an opinion on the subject, though he didn’t have a microscope and couldn’t see the ova. That would have added something to the subject that would have to wait another seven centuries or so. 

The Aramaic (Onkelos) translation of the Torah tries to avoid the controversy of female seed. Crack out your Onkelos and see how he translates “make seed” in our portion, when a woman bears or carries and gives birth, avoiding the controversy of the zera root and female seed entirely. I like the 12th century Spanish-Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra’s poetry on this verse: The woman is like the earth, that is how she makes seed. He reads it poetically, not literally, generally a good move to my mind. 

So what does this word seed — associated with woman — occasion? It is the thoroughly modern controversy of sex-linked roles, male and female, who contributes what, how much am I man, how much am I woman, at the conception: the paradigm of all sex-linked roles. 

Nowadays, science has helped us understand the who-contributes-what question, but our thinking has not, as it were, kept pace with our knowing, and we are still slugging it out in the culture wars — what constitutes male, what constitutes female –  and G-d forbid the two should cross borders. 

When we were gestating with our first child, we ran into a famous Rav who looked at my wife toward the culmination of the embryonic journey and asked, “Is it a boy or a girl?” Before we could say anything, he corrected himself, “Of course there are so many more than two possibilities.”

So true. So much about male and female is spectrum, not an outpost where human beings live behind well-guarded borders. If we understood that, we would welcome each other in all the wonder of our male- and female-ness, all bound up together. We are complex this way, and who boys are supposed to be and who girls are supposed to be would release its obstinacy, and we would welcome each other with whatever profile we assume in the world and lead with respect – respect and compassion for the great variety of qualities that are bound up in our identities. 

Amen to that.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.